Many environmentalists are understandably pushing hard for more investment in cleaner methods of propulsion.
Over the past 10 years, electric (battery) cars have become a practical reality. True, progress and market take-up have both been slower than anticipated perhaps 20 years ago but even so, things are now starting to move and gain momentum.
In terms of commercial vehicles, including larger trucks and vans, progress seems to be happening at little more than a snail’s pace. What’s the problem?
It’s worth remembering that electrically-driven vehicles go back a long time – in fact over a century.
Even more puzzling when considering the current position is the fact that perhaps 50-75 years ago, the most commonly seen electrically-driven vehicles on the roads, excluding trams and trolley busses, were battery-powered commercial delivery vehicles. In the United Kingdom, for example, milk and other groceries in the 1950s were regularly delivered to inner-city doors by battery-powered vehicles called ‘floats’.
Yet today, you’ll be hard-pushed to find battery-driven goods vehicles anywhere – with a few laudable exceptions.
There are, of course, some very significant technical challenges when talking about heavier commercial vehicles and electric propulsion.
There’s no need to get into the physics in depth here but suffice it to say that getting a perhaps 60 tonne, 15-metre long vehicle up to 100kph from start is a very different power demand and engineering challenge to that associated with a typical battery family saloon or the smaller public transport battery buses now found in many cities.
There are also major range issues.
Many commercial vehicles may spend an entire day in short distance deliveries in a town but the next day they might need to deal with a 1,000 kilometre round-trip. That’s a significant challenge for battery-powered vehicles, particularly considering the weights involved.
If that wasn’t bad enough news, it’s then necessary to think about ‘the unexpected’, such as the return leg of that 1,000 kilometre round-trip running into extended traffic jams and grinding along for several hours at low speeds and stop-start.
Charging is another major problem. A commercial vehicle needs to be working 12-15 hours out of every 24 to cover the costs of operating it. So, there just isn’t time to take it off the road and plug it in for extended periods while it recharges. Swapping out batteries is a possibility but that adds a huge infrastructure cost and things such as in-road charging just aren’t here yet.
All in all, this is a very different proposition to that of producing a viable car or inner-city bus.
There is another significant inhibitor at work here and that’s the sordid domain of commercial pressures.
Even if the technology was available and viable, the vast majority of hauliers and household removals companies (etc.) simply don’t have the financial capabilities required to ‘throw out’ all their conventionally-powered vehicles overnight and move to electric ones.
When success stories in this domain are highlighted, it’s often in the public sector where subsidies are high and commercial survival priorities low to non-existent. Those stories in the private sector are often household-name private organisations with very large budgets who have switched some smaller vehicles over due to genuine environmental principles but also in some cases, perhaps cynically, because of the PR opportunities involved.
Progress in battery-powered commercial vehicles IS happening though and it’s to be applauded and encouraged. However, expecting large-scale revolutionary change here over the short to medium term would perhaps be a little optimistic.